St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Climate change is about corporate power

This article was originally posted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Climate change is about corporate power

By Jeff Ordower

The sense of urgency is palpable.

Last week, 50 strangers turned out for a meeting on climate change at Central Reform Congregation. The Post-Dispatch played a critical role in that organizing through its use of the editorial page.

There is motion starting, but I worry about the where and the how. Many in the movement argue this is simply a matter of lifestyle changes. We will never be able, though, to change the behavior for the 3 million people in the region. More importantly, not all of those people will be able to buy local or drive less. While low-income folks might want to save gas, their driving to a job far away is necessary to providing an income for their household. As we are seeing this summer, senior citizens are simply not able to live without air conditioning. And to be perfectly honest, most of us (myself included) like some decadent components of our lifestyles and will never give up our creature comforts of good food or travel.

None of us can make lasting changes in our lives out of guilt. We should not feel guilt over the emissions that are causing global warming. Powerful corporations made it this way.

My parents can talk about the vast network of streetcars that existed around St. Louis. What happened to these streetcars across the U.S.? Automobile companies lobbied to eliminate streetcar tracks and privilege the roads and cars. The advantages accrued by unsustainable extractive companies continue to grow. Oil companies receive billions in subsidies while renewable energy providers receive almost nothing. There are huge tax breaks going for natural gas hydrofracturing (fracking) extraction, but nothing for commercial weatherization. Banks and global finance capital help perpetuate this system and make huge bets on coal extraction, yet a start-up solar company requires government assistance. Even the food we eat is traded by hedge funds on the secondary market as commodities produced by agribusiness.

The system is doing its job. It tells us that global warming is about our choices as consumers, rather than going after the root cause of our predicament. Here in St. Louis, we have an incredible opportunity to tackle corporate power head on. The largest private sector coal company in the world, Peabody Coal, is headquartered here in St. Louis, as is Monsanto, the largest agribusiness giant. In addition to Peabody, there are four other coal companies in the St. Louis area.

You would think that when trying to attack global warming here, people would want to challenge these local corporations. The corporations, though, play local politics pretty smart. Rather than paying its fair share of taxes, Peabody spends millions on the sponsorship of civic activities, including chairing this year’s United Way appeal. Who can argue with such a “charitable” corporation?

When we talk about building a movement, this is no movement in the abstract. This is about the coal companies, and their interest in garnering profits, rather than creating sustainable jobs. This is about the banks, and their interest in funding the extractive industries rather than adopting a path towards sustainability. And most importantly, this is about a corporate and institutional culture in the St. Louis region that considers the largest climate destroyers the most important engines of our region’s economic growth, rewarding them with plum positions on the RCGA, the United Way and on the board of Washington University, our most prestigious local university. Those whose behavior we must change are people who we can name — Greg Boyce, Hugh Grant, Mark Wrighton, Gary Dollar, Stephen Leer, Joe Reagan.

The people writing in to the Post-Dispatch are right. We need a movement. We need direct action. We need civil disobedience in a Selma-Montgomery-style movement. History shows that power structures do not change without bold, courageous and mass action. We ask those who are interested to join us in building a movement that compels our civic leaders and corporations to build a sustainable region for all of us, and most importantly for our future generations.

Jeff Ordower is the executive director of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, organizes with Rising Tide North America and has been a community or labor organizer for the past 20 years.

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